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CHAPTER 1 Opera from Monteverdi to Monteverdi


ex. 1-10 Claudio Monteverdi, Orfeo, Chorus (“Ahi caso acerbo”)

In one of the most impressive feats of self-rejuvenation in the history of music, the septuagenarian Monteverdi,

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bestirred by the institution of public opera theaters, or else offered terms he could not refuse, came out of retirement and composed a final trio of operas for the Teatro SS. Giovanni e Paolo, one of several competitors that quickly sprang up to challenge San Cassiano, the original opera house. The first was Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in patria (Ulysses’

Return to His Homeland), after Homer’s Odyssey. The second, now lost, concerned another mythological subject, the wedding of Aeneas. The last was L’incoronazione di Poppea, not a mythological but a historical fantasy based on Tacitus and other Roman historians. The librettist was Giovanni Francesco Busenello, a famous poet who was active in the Accademia degli Incogniti (the Academy of the Disguised), a society of libertines and skeptics who dominated the early Venetian commercial theater and did their best to subvert the values of court theatricals for the greater enjoyment of the paying public.

Busenello’s libretto celebrates neither the reward of virtue nor (as in Orfeo) the chastisement of vice. It is a

celebration of vice triumphant and virtue mocked. The librettist’s own argomento or synopsis, published in 1656 in his collected works, puts the story very concisely:

Nero, enamored of Poppaea, who was the wife of Otho, sent the latter, under the pretext of embassy, to Lusitania [Portugal], so that he could take his pleasure with her—this according to Cornelius Tacitus. But here we represent these actions differently. Otho, desperate at seeing himself deprived of Poppaea, gives himself over to frenzy and exclamations. Octavia, wife of Nero, orders Otho to kill Poppaea. Otho promises to do it;

but lacking the spirit to deprive his adored Poppaea of life, he dresses in the clothes of Drusilla, who was in love with him. Thus disguised, he enters the garden of Poppaea. Love [i.e., the god Eros] disturbs and prevents that death. Nero repudiates Octavia, in spite of the counsel of [the philosopher] Seneca, and takes Poppaea to wife. Seneca is sentenced to death, and Octavia is expelled from Rome.14

Monteverdi’s setting of this most unedifying—and in places virtually obscene—entertainment has the skimpiest of orchestras (just a little ritornello band notated in three or four staves for unspecified instruments, most likely strings), but it is cast throughout for flamboyant voice types that could never have existed in the court favole: two superbly developed prima-donna roles (the more virtuosic of them the fork-tongued, string-pulling title character, the more poignantly monodic one the wronged and rejected wife), two male parts for shrill castrato singers (the higher of them the feminized, manipulated Emperor Nero, the other the stoical wronged husband), and a quartet of low-born comic characters—one of them, a ghastly crone (Poppaea’s former wet nurse Arnalta) often played by a male falsettist in drag—who spoof, intentionally or not, the passions and gestures of their betters.

As often in Shakespeare, Monteverdi’s shorter-lived contemporary, the comic scenes are paired with the most serious ones. Thus, the scene in which Seneca carries out Nero’s sentence of death by committing suicide surrounded by his loving disciples is immediately followed by one in which Octavia’s page is shown chasing her lady-in-waiting, coyly singing the while that he is “feeling a certain something” (Sento un certo non so che) between his legs. And the opera’s most tragic moment, Octavia’s farewell to Rome as she boards the ship that is to take her into exile (Ex. 1-11), is followed immediately by the most farcical—Arnalta’s gloating at her mistress’s impending elevation, and her own (Ex. 1-12). Elsewhere the page, the opera’s “lowest” character, directly mocks Seneca, its most exalted one (Ex. 1-13).

ex. 1-11 Claudio Monteverdi, Lincoronazione di Poppea, Act III, scene 6 (Octavia), mm. 1–18

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ex. 1-12 Claudio Monteverdi, L’incoronazione di Poppea, Act III, scene 7 (Arnalta), mm. 1–28

ex. 1-13 Claudio Monteverdi, L’incoronazione di Poppea, Act I, scene 6, mm. 113–41

The relationship between Nero and Poppaea is represented frankly as lustful, and that lust is given graphic musical representation. In an early lovers’ dialogue, Poppaea flaunts her lips, her breasts, and her arms at Nero, and the composer, taking on the role of stage director, seems to prescribe not only her lines and their delivery but her lewd gestures as well. Nero, in response, makes explicit reference to their sexual encounters, even to “that inflamed spirit which, in kissing, I spilled in thee” (Ex. 1-14). And in the opera’s famous culminating number, the duet Pur ti miro, an arching, bristlingly sensual lust duet (for two sopranos, impossible to savor today at full outlandish strength even when the part of Nero is not transposed to the range of a “natural” man but sung by a woman), the music, in its writhing, coiling movements, the increased agitation of the middle section, and the dissonant friction between the singers’ parts (or between them both and the bass: see especially the setting of the words più non peno, più non moro in Ex. 1-15), leaves no doubt that the lovers are enacting their passion before us, whether or not the stage director dares show them in the act.

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ex. 1-14 Claudio Monteverdi, L’incoronazione di Poppea, Act I, scene 10, mm. 1–38

ex. 1-15 Claudio Monteverdi, L’incoronazione di Poppea, final scene, no. 24 (ciaccona: Pur ti miro), end

This duet, of which the final, opera-ending section is given in Ex. 1-15, symbolizes and formally celebrates in the guise of a ciaccona, a slow dance over a mesmerizing ground bass (again a descending tetrachord at the beginning and the end, but in the lubricious major rather than the lamenting minor), a craving that has subverted all moral and political codes. (Its form, with a contrasting middle section and a reprise of the opening “from the top” [da capo], would become increasingly popular with opera composers and eventually replace the strophic aria.) Where Orfeo, the court pageant, celebrated established order and authority and the cool moderation that its hero tragically

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violates, Poppea, the carnival show, brings it all down: passion wins out over reason, woman over man, guile over truth, impulse over wisdom, license over law, artifice (in persuasion, in the singing of it, in the voice itself) over nature.

Scholars now agree that Pur ti miro, once thought to be the aged Monteverdi’s sublime swan song, was not written by him at all, but by a younger composer (maybe Francesco Cavalli, Monteverdi’s pupil; maybe Benedetto Ferrari;

maybe Francesco Sacrati, now regarded as the prime suspect) for a revival in the early 1650s. Only that version, presumably one of many that circulated in the theaters at the time, has survived. And so it is now the standard text, but it had no such status in its own day. That is another difference between the court spectacles and the earliest real operas. The court operas, performed once only, were then printed up as souvenirs of the festivities for which they were composed in fully edited, idealized texts that resembled books. These scores could become the basis of later productions (and did so in the case of Orfeo), but that was not their primary purpose.

Commercial operas, by contrast, were not published at all until comparatively recent times. Like today’s commercial (e.g., “Broadway”) musical shows, they existed during their runs and revivals in a ceaseless maelstrom of negotiation and revision, existing in a multitude of versions—for this theater, for that theater, “for the road,” for this star or that—and never attained the status of finished texts. It distorts them considerably even to contemplate them from the purely “poietic” standpoint that has become the rule for “classical music.” They were esthesic objects par excellence, not texts but performances, embodying much that was unwritten and unwritable, directed outward at their audience, not at history, the museum, posterity, the classroom, or any other place where poietics is of primary interest.

Once again we observe that the fully textual (or textualized) condition we associate with “classical music” and its permanent canon of masterpieces came into being much later than many types of music that eventually entered its orbit, sometimes with distorting or invidious result. And yet the commercial opera never did altogether supplant the courtly, since they occupied differing social spheres and have only lately met, uneasily, on the modern operatic stage.

Ever since 1637, then, the world of opera has been a divided world, its two political strains—the edifying and the profitable, the authoritarian and the anarchic, the affirmational and the oppositional—unpeacefully coexisting, the tension between them conditioning everything about the genre: its forms, its styles, its meanings (or its attempts to circumvent meaning), its performance practices, its followings, its critical traditions. The same political tension lies behind every one of the press skirmishes, reforms, and “querelles” that dot operatic history (and that we shall be tracing in due course), and it informs the intermission disputes of today. Nothing else attests so well to opera’s cultural significance, and nothing else so well explains the durability of this oldest of living musical traditions in the West.


(14) Trans. Arthur Jacobs, in Monteverde, L’Incoronazione di Poppea, Libretto by G. F. Busenello, English version by Arthur Jacobs (London: Novello, 1989).

Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 1 Opera from Monteverdi to Monteverdi." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 27 Jan. 2011.


Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 1 Opera from Monteverdi to Monteverdi. In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 27 Jan. 2011, from


Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 1 Opera from Monteverdi to Monteverdi." In Music In The

Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 27 Jan. 2011, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-01007.xml

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Oxford History of Western Music: Richard Taruskin

CHAPTER 2 Fat Times and Lean